Monday, January 12, 2009

Baul-Fakir Utsav 2009: An Appreciation

Saturday and Sunday the Bauls and Fakirs were in town. In Jadavpur town, which just happens to fall slightly outside Calcutta city's municipal limits, although the post office codes it in greater Calcutta.

Never mind the geography, here's my appreciation...

This is the fourth year that a dedicated bunch of people have organised this unique celebration of Bengal's folk music. They make no profits from this show, voluntarily work very hard to make it a success, and somehow keep it going every year through donations and measly sponsorships.

When I first went for this show two years ago, my initial reaction was to think of an alternative venue. Now, I appreciate the underlying thinking of the organisers at keeping it where they have been holding it for these 4 years, depending on the largesse of music lovers to sustain their annual event. Were it to go out of the area, it will either become too big to handle, or it will die a slow death.

Why could it become too big to handle? Because big sponsors are self-centred and think only of the mileage they can get from the money they spend. They will want slick publicity, large air-conditioned venues, high-priced entry tickets, maximised advertising opportunities, saturation media coverage especially by television, and celebrity attendees among other demands. When this happens, mediocrity steps in. Mediocrity has to be sold through hype since there's no other attraction. Mediocrity will make itself felt through the ruling parties' interference in due course. Suddenly there will be security checks, shallow glamour and cunning artifice, and authentic folk music will be forced into the realm, and worse still, the control of the glitterati.

That's when the slow death thing will begin.

Right now, the musicians themselves have begun to accord this event the importance and significance it deserves despite the much older and more prestigious events at Santiniketan's Pous Mela and the Joydeb Mela at Kenduli. This is probably one of the only events where Bauls and Fakirs share the same stage. While their music has common ground and roots, there is a distinct philosophical difference in their way of thinking. In social and economic terms, both groups of musicians again have similarities. They live on the fringes of accepted/acceptable social circumstances, almost outcasts, many of them subsisting on less than what we might spend on cigarettes or movies at the mall in a month. Yet, their commitment to their art and lifestyle, and the conviction of their philosophy keeps them going when perhaps many greater 'secular' artists from the city, faced with this way of life, would have committed suicide out of depression, or at the very least, looked for alternative means of livelihood. For all intents and purposes, sold out.

I cannot claim to even begin to understand the philosophy behind the music and art of the Bauls and Fakirs even as I appreciate it. Their music moves me to levels of conscious and subconscious awareness that few other genres of music can do for me; blues and jazz being the notable exceptions. And I consider the similarities between baul-fakir, blues and jazz to be eerie but significant. The roots of all three genres are poverty, disadvantaged circumstances.

I think of it simplistically. These musicians keep going at their art, constantly honing their skills, widening their knowledge base, never too sure of where and when their next meal will come from, how tomorrow will fare for them. I wish I had the guts to do the same. So I do the next best thing. I help them in small ways, encourage their earnings through their art alone.

And the Shaktigarh Baul-Fakir Utsav must continue where it began. How refreshing to not have to tolerate ignorant bag and body searches, walk through metal-detector gates, stand in line for tickets, buy only pre-packaged food and drink of some American corporation, and be separated from the musicians by a high proscenium and bored police that effectively walls you off from enjoying the music utterly. The walls and roof of the “auditorium” are of sack cloth and tarpaulin, the structure of bamboo.

The floor is covered with dry rushes and hay strewn here and there with large cotton mats for you to sit on. A handful of chairs are provided for senior citizens or those with arthritis and rheumatism. As you are about to enter, a small counter with a box for donations is visible for you to give what you can. Another stall sells CDs of past concerts at ridiculous prices.

The open field where this event takes place is bang in the centre of a middle-class residential locality. On other days, youngsters use it as a playing field. Residents of the area, their friends, relatives and well-wishers, all chip in with whatever assistance they can offer. The local club and residents offer space to accommodate the musicians and their families for three or four days at no cost. The food you can buy is home-made and tastes as good - simple, cheap and nutritious. If you are inclined to partake of alcohol and marijuana to heighten your listening pleasure, you can do so quite openly with no one making a fuss, as long as you don't. The first night, some random party cadre tried to object to the open drinking and smoking going on. He was picked up by the scruff of his neck and pitched out of the place. That was it. Peace and calm after that. As it was before. And of course, the great music continued.
Children were all over the place, as were the elderly, all sharing the same space to indulge themselves in music that touches your soul, tugs at your heartstrings, melts your self into a nothing that is not more important than the music.

For the musicians, this place offers a return to an enthusiastic, unbiased audience. People come here for the music alone, and the music provides a rare opportunity for personal, social interaction which is warm, friendly and inspiring. Basically: a lovely atmosphere, great ambience. Going by the crowd this time, as well as the various other nationalities present, this Utsav cannot be allowed to become some corporate hegemony. The organisers of this event have so far managed to strike a precarious, and I might add, a precious balance between art and commerce, more in favour of the art thankfully. They have come together from all walks of life with a shared vision and the enthusiastic spirit to genuinely promote art and creativity without overt concern for profit or personal gain.

We need more such people in this world.


You can see some more photos of the musicians here.


Gordon-M said...

No doubt, the effervescent Patrick and his distaste for all things corporate or marketed in American ways!!
I'd say "Why not?" to promoting these gifted musicians and artistes thru the professional route. Why should promotion of Baul music beckon the hoi-polloi to give it that glitz? Cannot the common man, the middle class, do it in style yet refrain from inviting the rich and fancy for added glamour?
The problem lies not with the poor musicians but in OUR inability to make the event seemingly mega in the eyes of the Bhadrolok; the eyes of the youngsters who play on that field of a middle class residential locality.
Just what stops anyone from thinking BIG.
I see no reason why these folk artistes should be suffering the life of a pauper if WE have can appreciate their art and help them grow. Can't we?
Can anyone from amongst the audience touch his heart and say NOTHING can be done to ensure that these minstrels of their gallery cannot get a better venue/platform to perform? Try it!

Gordon-M said...

TRY THE ABOVE LINK... and you'll know why I wrote so...

p@tr!(k said...

I saw her perform this time at the "Ruhaniyat" Sufi & Mystic Music Festival at Tolly Club. She's great! Bought some CDs too - mixed bag of other musicians also.

Check this out:

sunyo said...

nice wite=up. i myself have been visiting this utsav for a few years...the organizers do a lovely job..and i also agree with the idea of this staying as simple as it can...anyone visiting the joydeb mela will know this.

subhomoy said...

superb, will be there next year inshallah.

gaea said...

Thank you for bringing alive the Baul Fakir Utsav... it sounds like a fantastic experience!

wondering though about the link between big sponsorships and mediocrity... do you feel it happens because the quality of the audience begins to deteriorate? at a certain level, music is after all a performance art... but then again while some of the greatest jazz musicians did start their careers in poverty and small gigs, they continued to innovate and create magic even after they became big...

Smita said...

Nice write up. Knowing for the first time about the Baul Fakir Utsav, Would love to be a part of it next time.

p@tr!(k said...

gaea: thanks! creativity has always required patronage to flourish. so perhaps the quality of patronage is directly proportionate to the creativity it supports?

p@tr!(k said...

Hi Smita! Thanks again. If you want to be at the Baul-Fakir Utsav next year, send me your email and I'll keep you posted... Or else keep watching the local papers.